Grace O'Malley would be a remarkable woman in any age but to have led her life in the flagrantly defiant way she did during Elizabethan times and surviving to the ripe old age of 73 is nothing short of a miracle.
Born in 1530 in County Mayo, daughter of the merchant-chieftain, she learned to sail from her father. At sixteen, Grace enters an arranged marriage with the indiscriminately lusty "Donals of the Battle" to secure adjoining lands. And battle he does, according to Gold, in an out of bed and on the field-a provocatively violent man. Eventually, he dies an appropriately violent death and his widow, denied of any inheritance, moves back to her family lands with her children. There she proves herself a skillful manager of the family estates and trading fleet and an expert mariner-and pirate. (Before the era of "Pirates of the Caribbean," the practice of relieving sluggish and ungainly merchant ships of their cargo at sea was common and generally tolerated by authorities.)
In his historical novel, The Pirate Queen (New American Library, 358pp, $14.00), Alan Gold takes us on those salty journeys to Spain and Portugal, France and Algiers where Grace indulges not only her trading acumen but her pirating skills. Author Gold aptly describes her passion for being at sea not only as a business but as an emotional release from confinement and claustrophobia of intrigues on land--an experience that will be familiar to his seagoing readers.
In 1566 she marries Richard-in-iron Bourke. In the novel, Gold calls him "Iron Dick"
(no relation to any contemporary leader, I assume) and together they fight the encroachment of the English on Irish lands. The kidnapping of their young son is the occasion of Grace's audacious call on Queen Elizabeth I. Gold imagines a true meeting of the minds of two courageous women both larger than life in their time. Many of the earthy details he uses to describe the Elizabethan court are part of the historic record of the meeting. Elizabeth is pre-occupied with the approach of the Spanish Armada and Grace, according to Gold, offers the successful strategy for its grand defeat. Historic record claims bad weather, but Gold's version is much more fun.
Gold has spun a great yarn around even greater facts. The genre of historical novel often rings false to me because of the difficulty of putting credible words and thoughts into the minds and mouths of the long dead. A willing suspension of disbelief has to be deftly coddled and cultivated. In the case of The Pirate Queen Gold employs a minimum of distracting and cumbersome period mimicry in his language and despite the bodice ripper cover of this paperback, spares his readers the anatomical details of the considerable bedding and battling of our heroine. A facile writer with a particularly good ear for rapid pacing and plotting, he spices and dices history with an aplomb that allows the reader to abandon reality with pleasure.
For readers whose interest has been piqued, there is also a well-researched biography of O'Malley available. First published in 1981, author Anne Chambers, who holds a MA in history from the National University of Ireland, has spent the last 25 years promoting O'Malley's story in the country's school systems and cultural centers. Both Chambers and Gold claim to have championed O'Malley's story and those of many other historic figures, mostly of the female persuasion, for having been "written out of history." A paperback edition of Chambers' book was published in 2003 and is still available.
And just in case you haven't heard, Grace will hit Broadway in March. "THE PIRATE QUEEN is a spectacular musical adventure celebrating the legendary Irish Chieftain Grace O'Malley. Commissioned and produced by Moya Doherty and John McColgan, the producers of Riverdance, this new musical combines classic storytelling and a sweeping score, with the powerful, vibrant traditions of Irish dance and song, to create a modern musical event that is both an historic romance and a timeless epic." (Source of quoted material: the show's website http://www.thepiratequeen.com/pq/show.htm). I say, go for it!